The Zombie Metaphor and a Future for the Human Species

NOTE TO THE READER: What follows is fiction, a draft of some future work? Maybe.

Hello, Birch, here is the piece I told you about. If you think it appropriate put it in the Darby Doomsday data base. I know it's pretty esoteric stuff, but hey you did hire me to conceptualize for Geek Chorus Software, so maybe we can find a place for this idea in our game.

What does it mean to be human? I don't mean in the larger sense, something anybody can all agree on–for example, that humans are sentient beings; I mean what does it mean to you as an individual? Answers vary. Here's what it means to me.

We philosophers have to concentrate on being self-aware more than most people. It's part of the job. Whether one is a hybrid Buddhist/Existentialist, such as myself, or a novelist like that bonehead Hebert, or even a news reporter, in the end one is always ruminating about one's self. We are not doers; we are mere thinkers. The only thing philosophers have to give to the world is our observations, our experiences, our insights, our very thoughts and feelings. To do that task at the highest level requires some examination of one's own thoughts, feelings, and personal history. There are different ways of going about this task. Let us count a few of the ways.

Now, Birch, I know that you were influenced by your grandmother Elenore Elman–you grew up with streak of her hybrid Catholicism; accordingly, you might examine your conscience before confessing your sins to your priest. Funny that we are asked to contemplate our vices and not our virtues. I suppose virtues are less interesting to heaven than the vices.

For the non-believer in you, and in most of our colleagues in Geek Chorus Software, there are the pleasures and pitfalls of telling your troubles to a therapist to discover how your family background has affected your behavior and feelings. Yet another way is to read the huge amount of literature these days about the mechanics of the brain. Fascinating stuff. Map your genome and pass it on, improved of course, to your progeny. Mix and match genes with our partners to create super babies. What the world doesn't know is that we in Geek Chorus Software are already halfway there with Wiqi Durocher and Luci Sanz.

As a philosopher, I have interests in all of these ways of self-discovery along with my own little quirky notions which lead to that question: what is it that makes us human and, more specifically, makes us ourselves? I don't think it's our commonality; it's our differences. Each human brain is a little different from other brains, and sometimes only we who possess the brain can locate, understand, and use these differences in our work and personal lives. I've given up on trying to be a better person, but I am constantly looking into myself in hopes of becoming a better thinker. I'll begin with general observations. Thinkers by nature tend to be outsiders, which leads to a kind of loneliness-in-a-crowd feeling. At the same time this state of mind gives us an ability to look at our world and ourselves from an outside perspective, like looking at the stars through a telescope or at bugs through a microscope. What is the human equivalent to the telescope or the microscope? It's your thinking apparatus. I ask myself the question? Just how do I think?

For Origen there are three ways to think: through imagery, through language, and through pure abstraction. And of course memory helps with thinking, though it is not thinking per se. I can picture a dog. Now I'm thinking of my family's beagle/basset hound (before the divorce, before my madness, before my crimes) that I take cross-country skiing. If I close my eyes I can picture myself on the skis after a fresh snow. I'm breaking trail in the woods. BeaBass runs with me. He goes up, then dives into the snow, and with his short legs almost disappears, until he suddenly shoots up. And now I am thinking metaphorically of a porpoise. BeaBass plunges in and out of the snow like a porpoise. Dog, porpoise. Two images. Am I really seeing a dog turn into a porpoise, the snow now an ocean? Not really. I am creating metaphors.

I used to believe that I thought mainly visually: Dog, porpoise, snow, cross-country skis. I see them in my mind's eye. Mind's eye? Now there's another metaphor. Just what do I see in this "mind's eye?" I'm trying but I don't visualize anything. Now I am analyzing myself after my incarceration, and the psychiatrist is asking me to draw a face with an emotional expression. I draw an ellipse with funny ears, round eyes, and my version of a frown. I have many limitations as an artist. One is that I can draw only crudely out of my ability to visualize; I can draw better what I see. This is the pattern of most people, even most professional artists. We draw from models or from photographs or from memory, but what is the nature of that memory?

Even when we draw from our so-called imagination we are actually putting together bits and pieces from structures produced by our memory. We are not really visualizing anything with this mind's eye; what's in our minds is a script; that is, the mind's eye does not see; it reports, describes, and fools us into thinking we are visualizing. Dog, beagle/basset, white with brown and black irregular shaped spots, floppy ears, short legs that resemble turkey drumsticks, and droopy eyes. The human ability to visualize is extremely primitive. We depend on language–or call it code–for just about everything that requires judgement and intelligence, even pictures in the so-called mind's eye.

What about abstract thinking? BeaBas is tangled in his leash. His doggie intelligence has certain olfactory advantages over mine, but when it comes to abstracting I have him beat. I can tell in an instant how to untangle him. Such is abstract thinking. It comes more or less automatically, like breathing. I don't actually think in abstractions. To summarize: my thinking, your thinking, all human thinking, is mainly verbal. Which makes me wonder: just how much thinking could I do if I didn't have language? Would I be no better off intellectually than my dog?

I'm at an age where a person's name, or even a common word, often does not come immediately to mind. It's in there some place, but I have to fish it out. Maybe there will come a day when the name itself has departed. Maybe there will come a day when I cannot remember your face. Cannot remember our times together. Cannot remember BeaBas. In this tragic decline, am I still me? Is there a point when I disappear? Maybe my body is still with you, but my soul has left. Or maybe the essence of Origen is just dead. I no longer exist. My apparently living body remains as a reminder to others that I once existed. But I am no longer there.

Sometimes the results of our thinking gets stored up in muscle memory, way way on the edge of our thinking processes. Indeed, thinking sometimes interferes with action. Think about how to hit a curve ball (which by the way I could never do with any facility) and the ball will go right by before you swing the bat. How about typing? Where is the "a" on the keyboard. The pinkie finger of my left hand knows before my brain does. Even every day conversation pours out without thought. When you stop to think out what you are going to say the language is almost always stilted. The best stuff comes unsummoned, also the worst stuff, the stuff you wish you could take back. Action from muscle memory is creative but messy. In this way, we are like the beasts who react under threat. Thinking is just a small part of the mind, but really it is the part that makes us who we are. How we think is what makes us human.

How are we different from animals? What makes us different from our cats and dogs, or the wild creatures? After all even a rat thinks to get itself out of a maze. Chimpanzees, like us, are self-aware and share most of our dna. What makes our thinking unique? Perhaps it is a disposition toward metaphor; furthermore, it's this disposition toward metaphor that led to complex human languages. As children grow into adults and become more sophisticated in their thinking they learn to quote unquote "read between the lines." What is not there is often more important than what is: this is metaphorical thinking at its most sophisticated–and perverse. Religion is a metaphor. Jokes are metaphors. Horse walks into a bar, bartender says, "Why the long face?" You can teach a dog a few nouns, and you can teach a chimp verbs, and you can teach a horse to react to your voice, but you cannot teach any of these creatures to respond to a simple joke that any ordinary human being will get: why the long face?

Let's take the word boring. You may be thinking, Origen bores me. You're probably not thinking that "boring" likely comes from the tedious activity of boring a hole with an old-style wood auger. What do we call a word whose metaphorical roots have been forgotten? A dead metaphor. Boring is a dead metaphor, because it's original meaning has passed away (another metaphor). The phrase "dead metaphor" is itself a dead metaphor, since a metaphor cannot literally die because it was never actually alive. Most of our nouns and many of our verbs are made up of dead metaphors.

I get a kick (another dead metaphor) when I see dead metaphors rise up out of the grave. Here's the lead paragraph from the sports page of a local newspaper. "Harisamowitz lit the spark that turned the tide." The literal meaning of words often sails right by our thinking apparatus, because our language, like ourselves, inhabits a world of figurative speech. And indeed figurative life. We read novels, go to the movies, watch TV, attend stage plays, indulge in video games, enjoy sporting events, listen to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me on the radio. So much of our lives occurs in a world of language-based make-believe.

In the Catholic world of your grandmother Elenore (who from reports baptized you in the cradle) baptized people had three possible places to go after death. If they were very very good, they would go to heaven; very very bad, hell; most people of course are neither very very good nor very very bad, and are headed for purgatory, like Hamlet's dad:

"Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confined to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away."

But what about the souls of unbaptized babies and other special cases? They went to limbo until God decided what to do with them at the final judgment. In our day limbo has taken on a new meaning. Limbo as a dead metaphor is a condition of waiting, often in a political context. The proposal is in limbo until the committee puts it on their agenda. You could actually use two dead metaphors to make a point that a casual reader would grasp without even thinking about the literal meaning, which would make no sense. The committee "tabled" the plan, which effectively put it "limbo."

So back in June of 2013 I'm listing to NPR's Morning Edition. Remember when one of the guys who detonated a bomb at the Boston Marathon was killed? Seems like no cemetery would accept his body for burial. Then one did. The newscaster said a Virginia cemetery had agreed to bury the body after the remains had been in limbo for a week.

When dead metaphors rise up out of their graves they lurch around but they are not really live metaphors. I call these zombie metaphors. For me, what it means to be human, what makes us unique, is our disposition toward metaphor. Once that's gone, the very idea of humanity is gone.

Let us now look at the future of the human species and how metaphor can save it.

With climate change, we are at the very beginning of what may well be a doomsday scenario. Even if our politicians smarten up and pass the laws necessary to make us a less polluting nation, will the rest of the world follow? I don't think so. Even if, magically, the entire world decided to go Green, it's probably too late. The earth has made its course change, and we really don't know where it's taking us in the next two or three or more centuries.

In fact, climate change is inevitable whether we humans act or not. Earth has made many climate corrections in its past and its climate will continue to change in ways that will be disruptive to civilization at best, ruinous at worst. Even if the impending climate change of our epoch ends up being relatively benign we–and by "we" I mean we humans–face so many other problems in the future that we could wreak havoc simply by being ourselves. Our institutions of order are so at odds with each other, so outmoded that they cannot keep up with technological change. Overpopulation alone could bring down civilization without a shot being fired.

And then there is pollution of various kinds. Remember that movie version of War of the Worlds? Invaders from outer space want to take over the earth, because they've ruined their own planet. Well, those invaders are us: we are ruining our own planet. In the movie the invaders suffer a massive die-off because of a pandemic. Who's to say we won't suffer the same fate? Even if humans do the right thing, clean up our act, it's likely that one of these days disaster will come from a crashing comet or asteroid or some other source outside of our ability to control or even to predict.

What we think of as civilization–which seems to come with the codification of spoken language into the written word–is only about 10,000 years old, if that. A blink in planetary time. We can imagine our world in ten years, in a hundred years, maybe even in another two or three hundred, but what about a thousand years? What about 10,000 years? What about one hundred thousand years? What about a million years? If cockroaches can survive millions of years, why can't we? Maybe we can and maybe we will, but because of these natural disasters that the planet itself is subject to I don't see how civilization as we know it can survive over a long period of time. The best we can hope for is a series of die-offs of our species with a few survivors each time. What we call civilization will have to be constantly rebuilt. A process of constant start-ups and failures. In the long run, very little progress. We're like that Greek guy that pushes the rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down over him, so he has to start over. And over. And over again.

In the end, changes in the sun will remove our oxygen and vaporize our oceans. The earth itself will fall into our now red sun. The sun will burn out.

Perhaps human civilization will be carried on in other worlds. But there are problems with that scenario, too. There's a lot of radiation once we leave the air cushion of mother earth. Biological life requires access to air, water and frequent food, and without this access it perishes. Trips to the stars seem unlikely given our present circumstance as short-lived, biological specimens.

If we are looking to maintain the human species and to advance civilization I don't think we can get there by conservation or technology or religious faith. Seems to me the gods of all our religions are as unreliable as our leaders. We can't depend on God; we can't depend on Nature. I think we have to depend upon ourselves. I believe our strongest asset is our ability to adapt and our disposition to embark. Human beings have a knack for road trips, boat trips, foot trips, mountain bike trips, space trips, and acid trips. We are at heart explorers looking for … something … what? God? Home? Gold? Our neighbor's spouse? Lands and peoples to conquer? Or just along for the ride? All those rides, what are they about? I think they are built into our dna. What would be–or perhaps I should say, what will be–the ultimate trip?

I think the answer to that question is our only hope for a journey toward a vibrant civilization in the near as well as the far distant future. And the answer is? To maintain our species we have to change ourselves. We have to take charge of our own evolution. Those of us with a religious bent of mind have to believe we are evolving toward God. Evolving toward–and now the heretic in me is speaking–immortality. What is the one part of ourselves that we share with all biological creatures–it's death. It's the one part of our humanity that we can all do without. I believe that evolution toward immortality has already begun. And the direction is away from our biological make-up.

Birch, remember when Luci and Wiqi outfitted you with a new artificial foot and ankle? It is a very well made prosthesis. You manipulate it with your nerve endings as if you have a real foot. You can even feel touch, cold and warmth. You and thousands of other people are making do with metaphors of body parts.

How about doing away with messy biological bodies and create designer bodies so that the entire physical self, like the artificial hand, is a prosthesis? The human body as a metaphor? Suppose you can transfer who you are: your self-awareness, your identity, your memories, everything that is you into a little package of parts that looks like you at your best; or, more likely, a better you. Better looking, more fit, smarter. For someone who is young, attractive, and athletic, and whose identity is still in the process of being formed a new unit is not a particularly enticing idea. But for someone over forty or who is on the decline because of disease or accident, or someone older in a nursing home, well, they’ll take that full body replacement in a New Hampshire minute.

Let's look at some of the benefits. Something goes wrong, you just replace the part. There's no aging. You become, for all practical purposes, immortal. We can adapt a lot faster to a changing earth than biological creatures. We can adapt ourselves to space travel easier. If we were to land on another planet and the natives of this place breached our spaceship they would not find a crew. We the explores would exist virtually in the computer of the spaceship. Our crew to the stars in effect would be the space craft. Once out of the ship and onto the surface we can adapt our bodies to its atmosphere and gravity and climate.

Our lives would not be dull. We would be able to experience everything that our biological ancestors experienced, from licking a popsicle, to the smell of pop corn popping, to going to the bath room, and even great sex; perhaps a little bit of managed pain now and then, not too much, just enough to remind us of our biological ancestry. As we replace our parts we can experience realms not available to biological humans. Seeing x-rays, hearing whales the way whales hear whales; maybe, I don't know, experiencing cosmic ray orgasms; shedding light on dark matter. On this journey to the stars, a dangerous mission for advanced humanity, you could back up your identity on the equivalent of what we call today a server. You would be–what?–beside yourself?

I like to think once we dispense with biological bodies that the idea of human competition–conquest and war and torture–will be ameliorated or maybe even fade into history. Take away the curse of mortality and bring on an enhanced pleasure principle and there is little reason to want to control and dominate others.

The human epoch as a metaphor of its biological days: well, I find it exciting and disconcerting to think about. Such change is far enough away in the future that it's not scary, like worrying about your children having to deal with climate change or atomic bomb warfare. Certainly, mind-transfer will never happen for me, nor for you, Birch. What about your children, your grandchildren, our progeny down the line? How long– fifty years, a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand? Who knows, but at the rate technology is expanding it might not be all that long.

The obvious problem, man against machine, has been done over and over again in Hollywood movies and sci-fi novels. The machines take over and we're fighting the robots. In the movies we always squeeze out a win. In the real world if the robots really to do get smarter than we are and want to take over they will. We won't stand a chance. I think Hollywood and the sci-fi folks have it all wrong, though. I think Luci Sanz and Wiqi Durocher are on the right track for an inevitable future. We won't be fighting the machine. We will be the machine.

The real problem is making the transition from biological to metaphorical humanity. A promise of immortality, a promise of a body that is always efficient, a body that will constantly improve itself, a body that feels no pain, a body that can experience what it means to be human without worry of illness or aging, who won't want it? Who will get it? I think the answer is obvious. The rich and powerful, their families, their connections will grab for the technology: a few national political leaders, corporate CEOs, rogue billionaires, generalismos. There will be wars to see who controls this medium. In the end, whoever wins will have total command. Will they be the caretakers for the rest of us? Will they enslave us? My guess is they will simply sterilize the remaining humans, and biological humanity will die out. Maybe not; maybe a few people will be kept in zoos as curiosities.

The final product of human beings, say one million years from now, will be a mathematical construct. We will experience all that is human but it will be virtual. Sounds horrifying to us bio humans, but really with the way we live today we're already half way there. We are highly adaptable to a life of metaphor.

For us at Geek Chorus Software I say we must always keep in mind our motto: All Can Be Saved.